In the work that would ultimately define Robert Altman’s filmmaking carrer both as a process behind-the-camera and a style onscreen, Altman takes a cue from Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” using “ideas as… [his] maps” to guide us through his version of Nashville (and by extension America) as he saw it post-Watergate in 1975.
A freewheeling epic piece of cinematic portraiture that leaves “the obligatory scenes out” to follow dozens of characters and set a specific time and place onscreen, Nashville seems like quintessential Altman to fans looking back today but in understanding its chronological place in his filmography – it’s a piece of filmic tapestry built from the ambitions and experimentation explored earlier in his career.
From the oral credits that echo M*A*S*H to the motif of character sacrifice that began with The Long Goodbye and would continue on up through his sardonic Sunset Boulevard infused Hollywood roast The Player, Nashville captures the filmmaker at the very peak of his directorial powers.
Recognizing the truth – as in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil– that sometimes you make your best work under the gun, Nashville began as a compromise by Altman, promising Paramount a country western movie in exchange for the greenlight to make Thieves Like Us.
Given a garbage script he refused to shoot, he relied upon the most Altman of traits – loyalty – in collaborating with longtime friend and Thieves scripter Joan Tewkesbury who traveled to Nashville with a journal at her side.
A stranger in a strange land, Tewkesbury culled many of the film’s most memorable sequences from personal experience including the opening traffic jam that turns into a neighborhood block party and establishes the vital idea that the characters will be vehicles themselves, occasionally colliding and passing one another both accidentally and on purpose.
While in the end Tewkesbury’s 140 page opus was distilled to its very essence by Alan Rudolph and a large amount of the film’s dialogue and action was discovered during its extensive rehearsal period, Tewkesbury’s sense of gender balance and outsider appeal lives on in the final cut as Molly Haskell beautifully describes in her Criterion Collection essay.
Given the most control he’s ever had over one of his films, Altman took advantage of the absence of studio interference, amusingly joking in one of the Criterion’s three supplemental filmmaker interviews that by not having power, he had power indeed, paving the way for other directors like Clint Eastwood to go off and make films on their own, outsiders be damned. And in doing so, he released what the vintage trailer promises was “the damndest thing you ever saw,” in a film that defies genre label or any other traditional categorization by celebrating the very cast that helped create it.
Avoiding the surrealism, impressionism or expressionism found in foreign films of the past in favor of his own brand of heightened realism that had more in common with a great American novel than the docudramatic work of contemporaries like John Cassavetes or Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman paved the way for not only Paul Thomas Anderson but early 2000 Mexican New Wave filmmakers like Alejandro González Iñárritu as well.
In a similar vein, in this – my fourth viewing of the film – and the first time not on VHS, it’s impossible to watch and not see how much inspiration has been taken from the work in other mediums, with HBO’s The Wire and Treme feeling like long-lost descendants as well.
Yet as influential as it is, it remains just as vibrant as ever, merging together the plights of more than twenty-four distinct characters, over an hour of musical performances and an ever-present political van where a disembodied voice manages to alternately engage, provoke, confuse and empower everyday citizens to participate in government across a five day period.
Without any main characters or archetypal heroes or villains (at least that we can see coming the first time around), everyone is given equal footing. This idea makes Nashville timelier than ever as a refreshing celebration of the everyman and woman from magician to groupie in a post-modern world with a 24 hour celebrity news cycle that has turned America into a bit of a caste system of ninety-nine percenters taught that they don’t matter unless they are “seen”... even in an un-heroic light.
Similar to another ‘70s era multi-character (although more traditional) masterpiece The Godfather, I manage to find new things to love and a new main character to become fully invested in with every viewing.
Nonetheless, the two individuals who have always stood out in Altman’s classic were both last-minute casting changes in the form of Lily Tomlin’s gospel singer (replacing Louise Fletcher) and Henry Gibson’s initial country stereotype who later manages to put people before himself in the work’s bravura ending in a role that was (coincidentally) originally slated for Godfather's Robert Duvall.
While Gibson’s selfless act at the end marks a big surprise that makes you reevaluate your perception of the character and check your own stereotypes at the door, Tomlin’s character’s actions are surprising on a far subtler level when the married mother of two deaf children finds herself tempted by Keith Carradine’s lothario folk rocker.
The seductive lead-in to their tryst – deliciously unsentimental by the effect that his performance of the Oscar winning Original Song has on (at least) three women who believe he’s singing “I’m Easy” to them – is one of the high-points of the movie, managing to convey multiple thoughts from and about the perspectives of several characters at the exact same time.
And although we see Carradine bed a multitude of beauties, the effect that Lily Tomlin has on him is just as powerful as the song he’d previously sung has been on her. Yet true to life, we’re the solitary witnesses to the facts of just what goes on behind closed doors between men and women as the full weight of Tomlin’s scene is felt after she closes the door behind her and leaves him alone onscreen.
While Altman always intended the obnoxious BBC reporter played by Geraldine Chaplin to serve as a sort of stand-in and bridge from the film to the audience with the way she gets into people’s faces, establishes their history and asks some of the questions we want to know, I’ve always felt like the truest guide to Nashville is Scott Glenn’s unnamed Vietnam veteran soldier.
A man whom we recognize only in regard to his uniform and the name “Kelly” adorned upon it, Glenn’s sensitive soldier is present at most of the film’s most vital scenes and it’s in his ambiguity that Altman truly invites us to confront our thoughts, hopes and fears in the post-Kennedy, Vietnam War and Watergate America as Altman’s Nashville opened just two months after the war ended. And it's in his interactions with others where people are often at their emotionally truest for better or worse.
Brilliantly restored for its Criterion Collection debut, the 683rd series release serves up the film in a Blu-ray and DVD combo pack, offering the 160 minute work separately on two discs in each format and boasting a bonus DVD of standard definition extras already included on the high definition disc.
In addition to the traditional keepsake book featuring Haskell’s well-researched, thoroughly engrossing essay and the three interviews with the late filmmaker from 1975, 2001 and 2002, Criterion’s gorgeous Nashville collection also offers a brand new feature-length documentary, vintage behind-the-scenes footage, live Carradine musical demos along with Altman’s 2001 DVD commentary.
Since it packs quite an audible punch and in soundbar tests, I did notice a distinct lack of clarity, Nashville is best experienced on a big screen television in high definition complete with 5.1 DTS-HD surround sound to fully appreciate Jim Webb’s breakthrough multi-track sound system capable of picking up the subtle nuances of layered voices in a way that makes them all understandable.
As weird, witty, wonderful and wild in its wandering style as it was the first time I ever saw the film – Altman’s cinematic novel is most often remembered for its influence on the auteurs that followed. But perhaps its biggest impact was on the filmmaker himself as Nashville was not only birthed from Altman films of the past but – thanks to the ideas in it that he mapped – would likewise go on to birth some of the best Altman films of the future from The Player and Short Cuts to Cookie’s Fortune and Gosford Park.
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